"A Liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward' - thus Mark Twain on Bret Harte, another 19th-century yarn-spinner and his onetime mentor and friend. As with most of the eight quaint and curious dust-ups described in "Literary Feuds," the spit hits the fan because a couple of high-profile writers remember every slight but forget that fame is fleeting. Sensitive, venomous and sometimes irrational, they'll attack even without provocation. When this incident occurred, Twain's star was soaring and Harte was writing copy for soap ads.
Sinclair Lewis took a slap for calling Theodore Dreiser a plagiarist (of a book on Russia by Lewis's wife, Dorothy Thompson), but the subtext was the Nobel Prize for which the two men had been vying just months before. Lewis had won. Mary McCarthy punctured the fragile renown of Lillian Hellman by questioning the elderly memoirist's honesty in a famous line: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' " Gertrude Stein pricked Ernest Hemingway where it hurt most, calling him a "climber" and a coward. Papa's vicious response came 31 years later in "A Moveable Feast."
The other four bouts offer a feast of invective and ad hominem attack. Vladimir Nabokov ripped into Edmund Wilson for criticizing Nabokov's Pushkin translation. F.R. Leavis buried C.P. Snow over his "two cultures" of science and literature. Writerly rivals early on, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal ended up trading vitriolic squibs because of their Kennedy connections. The old question of popular success and literary merit has a feisty Tom Wolfe dueling with John Updike, as well as Norman Mailer and John Irving.
Anthony Arthur says he has "taught all of the authors discussed here to college students since the 1960s." The touch of a good teacher is evident in his mostly light-handed analysis of the writers' works and quirks and in the way he briskly sets their milieu. His suggestion that the feuds will provide counterpoint to the writings, though, betrays an academic's wishful thinking that readers will be eager to revisit old acquaintances. Not many of these 16 writers are widely read outside the college classroom, but for his engaging diptychs Mr. Arthur should be.
--Jeffrey Burke, Wall Street Journal
"Readable, engaging look at memorable fights among (mostly) 20th-century literary personalities.... an amusing compendium of the vitriol and ego for which our most enduring writers somehow set aside the time."--Kirkus Reviews